The llama in shadow, 10/11/14

“…he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin.”

JRR Tolkien, The Two Towers

It’s a dreich November morning in the Lakes and I’ve chosen Cam Crag (a grade 2 scramble) as a route up Glaramara because:

  1. I’ve done the route half a dozen times and I know the line. I can navigate from Langstrath to the summit and back down into Borrowdale even in low visibility (which is what this morning brings).
  2. It really is dreich, but I know the route is well within my limits. The geology is good, grippy, volcanic rock that I can trust even in the wet.

I park just past Stonethwaite school and follow the road into the village, whence it becomes a farm track running up into Langtsrath. It’s pleasant (if damp) going, winding up through old woodland, mist-shrouded and hung with moss. Where Stonethwaite Beck splits into two, I take the western fork, following Langstrath Beck out of the trees onto open fells. It’s wild country here; on a sunny day there would be picnickers and possibly swimmers where the stream broadens near Blackmoss Pot, but today it is bleak, grey and forbidding.

As the track crosses the flow to join the Cumbrian Way, I start to angle gently uphill. At the 200m contour, I turn my face to the heights and handrail Woof Gill up to Woof Stones. I pause on the southern side of the stones for a bite and a drink and to strap on my climbing helmet. The first 3 or 4 metres of the scramble start here; easy going on rough-textured rock – always with three points of contact – to warm up. I top out above Woof Stones and head across a long, flattish slab to the next stage of the scramble.

Picture of author looking dubious

Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought, to take a funny selfie for my blog…

What follows is reconstructed from fractured memory, medical notes, and conversation with the Mountain Rescue paramedic who treated me on the scene. I cannot swear to its veracity as I have viewed these events through the prisms of injury, shock, relief and a great deal of morphine – I’m certain for instance that the search dogs were not allowed to lick my face, but that is how it appears in my mind’s eye in the romanticised afterglow of not dying. Luckily, this is a blog and not magical-realist fiction so I can just say so here rather than trying to cleverly construct narrative signals that explain this without stating it (if that’s your thing, I recommend Tim O’Brien’s astonishing Vietnam War short stories collection The Things They Carried. I digress). I’ve tried not to overplay the seriousness of my injuries nor indeed my stoicism in the face of them. Anything giving the impression of pragmatism is displacement activity to avoid thinking about how much trouble I’m in.

As I’m moving my right hand up toward the next hold, both feet flick out from under me – perhaps I’ve placed them both on moss that simply peels off the rock – and I’m left hanging on my left arm. I can’t get any purchase with my right hand or either of my feet. Eventually , my upper body just gives way and I fall. I drop 5 metres straight down onto uneven ground where I bounce down a steep, rock-studded slope for a further 30-40 metres. The world cartwheels around a fragile, little hub of pain, fear and panic. Toward the end of my tumble, my helmet is ripped off by the violence of my descent. At some point I pass out..

When I return to the world, I’m on my back, head pointing downslope. I can feel there’s something wrong with my ribs and when I look up, my right foot is flopping about horrifically. I lever myself upright and try to drag myself backwards into a position that will allow me to assess the situation. When I load my weight onto my arms, I discover that my right collar bone may be broken and that I can’t feel my left arm. Sitrep unfavourable. For the record and from my records:

Injuries:

  • Left 4-10 rib fractures – these were managed supportively and have improved well
  • Thoracic 6 vertebral body fracture – underwent surgical fixation
  • Thoracic 5 + 6 and lumbar 1 + 4 transverse process fractures; sacrum 1 + 2 spinous process fractures – managed conservatively
  • Right clavicle fracture – managed conservatively with a sling
  • Left brachial plexus neuropraxia – no injury found on MRI – improving with physiotherapy
  • Open right tibial fracture – managed operatively

(LGI Discharge notes)

In short, I traumatised the nerve cluster that works my left arm, broke my back, my right collar bone, seven ribs and my right leg (and punched my tibia out through my calf).

Picture of surgical scar on author's spine.

To be fair, they made a tidy job of stabilising my spine. Thanks, NRVI. Picture by Emma Adams

At one level, I know that I left a decent route description with my family and they’ll call Mountain Rescue if I’m not back by 17:00. At a rather more pressing level, I’m in pain and shock and some difficulty

My iPhone has survived so I try to summon rescue myself. No signal for a 999 call. Also, I notice it’s only 14:30. I’m not sure what time I fell. Elsewhere in the rucksack, my flexi flask burst during the fall – doubtless the litre of water there soaked up some impact that would have otherwise have been transmitted to my back. I have a flask of coffee, some sandwiches, a survival bag and my Buffalo belay jacket.

I swapped rucksacks this morning. My other Macpac sack had an emergency whistle built into the sternum strap. This one doesn’t. I haven’t transferred my first aid kit or my headtorch.

I manage to drag/push myself backwards into a position where my back is supported and my leg is in a straight line and elevated. I drink coffee. I eat sandwiches. I can’t get my legs into the survival bag because one of them is broken, but I get it underneath me to insulate myself from the ground. I can’t get my belay jacket on because my left arm is too unmanageable, but I get it across my shoulders to insulate myself from the sky. I can’t get my gloves back on because my left hand won’t work so I tuck them (and my cold hands) into the kangaroo pocket on my smock. Then I hunker down to wait for the cavalry. I am weatherproof but I am frightened, distressed and I have never felt so alone. I would not wish this situation on another living thing.

There is a saying that pain is weakness leaving the body. I know not its provenance and nor do I care – it is the hollow sound of someone selling you gym membership. The roiling wave of nausea that writhes up through you when one half of your broken tibia grates across the other half of your broken tibia is not weakness leaving the body. It is your body telling you that, this time, you may have bitten off more than you can chew without choking.

Picture of brusing on author's upper body.

Bruising on my neck and shoulders 10 days after my accident. Picture by Maria Spadafora.

I slip in and out of consciousness for I know not how long. In a lucid moment, I find that it is raining, it is getting dark and there is blood dripping from my right trouser leg. Joy. Then at some point it is very dark and still raining and I try again for a 999 signal – I notice that it is around 20:30. In my deepening despair I fear they have called off the search until the morrow because the weather’s too grim or it’s just too dark and they don’t want to risk anyone else’s safety on difficult terrain at night. Fair enough, I think, and then I consider the prospect of a night out here alone and the possibility that hypothermia or blood loss might reach me before Mountain Rescue.

I have no sooner had this thought than out of the corner of my right eye, I see two dogs bounding past on the edge of torchlight and I hear voices. I cannot communicate how utterly full of relief I am right at this moment. For all the ruin in which I huddle, my entire body floods with gratitude and joy. I rear up on my shattered frame shouting “Help me, please help me, I’m here, please don’t leave me!” Somewhere in the darkness, a voice answers “It’s alright, keep shouting and we’ll find you.” Half in elation, half in agony, face puffed up with tears and snot, I call over and over “Help me, I’m here, help me, I’m here.” until my voice cracks and my world irises down to a little circle of headtorch glow and happy, licking muzzles. When the paramedic gets to me, I have toppled face down, I have no idea where my left arm is relative to the rest of me and my right leg is 3-4 inches shorter than my left. A multi-person shelter is pulled over me and after over 7 hours alone with my injuries, I dimly grasp that I am not going to die this time. Then the morphine arrives and I am cast free of this world’s shackles for a short while.

Picture of brusing amd scarring on author's upper body and face.

In discomfort and confusion 10 days later, but very glad to be alive. Picture by Maria Spadafora.

I can never adequately thank the good people (and hounds) of Keswick Mountain Rescue for my life. That anyone should give up their free time to look for me in such conditions is almost beyond my comprehension. Similarly I am indebted to the staff of the High Dependency Unit and Ward 22 of Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary, Ward 22 of Leeds General Infirmary and the physiotherapy team at St Luke’s Hospital for my treatment, care and continuing recovery. Mountain Rescue volunteers and the NHS are two things that should make us proud to be British.

One more (perhaps peculiar) thank you – to my helmet. I cannot absolutely swear that it saved my life, but looking at the grooves scratched into its dome by my fall, I’m very glad they weren’t in my skull. At the very best, it would have meant trying to keep it together with blood pouring down my face. A worst case doesn’t bear contemplation.

Picture of damage to author's helmet.

The scratches in my helmet may not look that deep, but it is much harder than my scalp.

Some lessons to cut out and keep:

I now have a safety whistle in a pocket of all of my rucksacks. If you’re heading for the hills, leave a proper route description and return time with someone – Keswick MRT were able to find me as quickly as they did because they weren’t searching the whole of Glaramara. Headtorch! That was a stupid omission, and the strobe setting on my torch would have made me easier to find and may have been spotted earlier in my plight. If you’re scrambling, wear a helmet – it’s better to wear one and not need it than to need it and not be wearing one. If you enjoy any activity in the mountains, please make a donation to Mountain Rescue. You can donate to Mountain Rescue England and Wales or Scottish Mountain Rescue online. You never know when you might need them, whether or not the route is within your capability.

Kit list:
My pack (a Macpac Pitch) contained: Buffalo Belay jacket, OS OL Sheet 4, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Julbo sunglasses, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, Petzl Elios climbing helmet, iPhone, coffee, water, ham and pickle sandwiches, a KitKat. I wore Millet High Roc boots, Montane Vortex Stretch gaiters, Montane Terra XT pants, Montane Extreme smock. Most of my clothing was removed by the emergency services with scissors – it is difficult to resent this.

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56 thoughts on “The llama in shadow, 10/11/14

  1. Absolutely astonishing. From following g on Twitter I was aware of the severity of the fall but you really are a lucky chap to have survived and yes I think wearing a helmet played a large part in that. How did you feel writing this? Really glad you are healing. Will you return (eventually) to climbing. Tricia.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  2. Can’t tell you how happy it makes me that you are actually with us in order to be able to write this. It’s an astonishing read, if not a little difficult to read at times for anyone who knows and loves you. It can’t have been easy to commit this event to print (or whatever you call it in a blog), but it is a very worthy thing to do.

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  3. You made me laugh a little, and cry a little as well. But I guess that was what I expected. I am glad i got to read this – though hugely sorry circumstances made it necessary for this post to be added to your others. I hope writing it has helped with the bits of your recovery that arent just about bones and muscle, but maybe just as painful and difficult to recover from. It will probably help the rest of us come to terms with it – if maybe slightly over pack for a day in the Dales….. I look forward to the next instalments. May they be legion…..

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  4. Blimey mate, that was a tough read and I have to confess I skipped some of the more medical passages. I assume it was cathartic to finally get it all written down?

    Glad you’re making a good recovery and look forward to catching up with you in a couple of weeks time.
    Rob.

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  5. Good to know that you’re regaining previous fine form. Please tell that fell to do something unprintable from me. Hope you’re enjoying some Jazz Cement in the meantime.
    All the best from sunny Manchester.

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  6. As well as prioritising the contents of your backpack and the durability of all your clothing and equipment, thanking your lucky stars and the tremendous generosity of the rescuers and your family and friends will you find time to write more as your body and spirit is healing? Maybe you do and just haven’t kept up with Twitter and stuff any old road up despite hearing of your terrible experience that day that really was a gripping read. Wishing you all the best.

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  7. I was thinking of commenting about how a mountain can change your life yet we can never change the mountain etc etc.

    Rather I will simply congratulate you on having such good scars.

    Good to see you mending.

    Stephen

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  8. Glad you are alive and able to write it down. You were prepared and exerienced and things still happen 😦 Did you ever consider taking a Spot Gen3 or Delorme with you? I NEVER go anywhere without it. Good that you left a detailed route where you were going to. Take care, and hope you make a quick recovery

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      • The Spot or the Delorme devices are satellite receivers. They send out signals and you are able to send messages for help. I have the Spot Gen3 attached to my backpack. Beacons are sent every 5 minutes and my husband can check where I am and whether I am still moving. I regularly send out an OK message which he receives as well. Furthermore we assigned another message button for car trouble, and ofcourse there is the real SOS button which will bring help as send out by the centralist. The Delorme has a two way system, is somewhat more expensive though. For the UK the Spot works fine. Maybe something to look into, it is worth every penny for me I do feel safe since I am always on my own (with the dog) outdoors and most of the time without mobile phone coverage

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  9. Wow glad things are on the mend! Made me cry alittle.
    I’m always thinking is there ever anything I can cut down on in my bag for weight but then I always say nope as it will be sods law I’ll need it!
    I’m definitely not thinking that anymore.
    Hope you recover well keep strong x

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  10. I can’t tell you how glad I was to read this. Why? Because if you are able to blog it means you are on the mend. Be gentle with yourself x

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    • Was horrified when I heard, especially as it was via a crackly answerphone message. It seems the Geordies did a pretty good job of patching you up all told. You may (or may not) know that MrBeeLady is a climber. He fell off an Alp and broke his back (albeit way before he met me) and still enjoys climbing when the tinies allow timewise. I think it made him re-evaluate the way he did certain things, but that’s not a bad thing, so hopefully when you are less broken you will be back at it with fresh perspective. Just ’cause we aren’t in touch often doesn’t mean we stop thinking of you. Andy and Mr McCormack send their best…

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  11. You are one jammy bugger!!
    Sobering read, although pulling you back from a passing lorry trying to make Boris marmalade brings back memories of similar shock and horror.
    As Canoe Reevez said ‘Pain heals, chicks dig scars but glory is forever!’ Glad your on the mend Boris!
    Vally

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  12. Sad but really good short story, a lesson to learn : even the best out there on the hills forgot some little life saving!
    For long time now whenever we go for a stroll or higher in the lakes mountain we always take the essentials with us , not only for us but for the fools who think a Sunday walk in trainers is acceptable!
    Wish you a good recovery.

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  14. Wow what a story. Was tempted to skip right to the end to make sure you made it, but remembered you must have given you lived to tell the tale! If Danny Boyle hadn’t got there first with 127 hours, it might have made a good script for a movie!

    At the very least, I think this (and your following post) is perfect evidence to why we’re so lucky to have the NHS.

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  16. Thank you for sharing, it highlights the importance of letting people know where you’re going and to be equipped well. I hope that you’ll make a great recovery. And yes the NHS and MRT are a national treasure.

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    • Thank you! I’ve had loads of people saying “I never leave a route description and I know I should and now I will.” If I’ve done just one thing to make life easier for Mountain Rescue then I am very happy – they are amazing people.

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  17. There but for fortune. The honesty of your blog made wince a couple of times, I have to say. But it also made me think that I must be stricter with my mental checklist before setting out. The enthusiasm of a hill day often means that I forget vital kit and procedures, even after all these years.

    It was my privilege to meet the guys (and dogs) of Keswick MRT (luckily for me, in more pleasurable circumstances than yours) a few weeks after your accident and could not agree more that we should be thankful for our Mountain Rescue Teams. Whether we’ve needed them or not, it’s good to know they’re there if things go awry.

    Thanks for writing down such a traumatic experience. I’m really glad you’re on the mend and hope your enthusiasm for the outdoors is undiminished. Solo scrambling is something I’ve always enjoyed and Cam Crag Ridge is a grand way to start a day on the fells – a better choice than Intake Ridge in those conditions. You even exercised good judgement in your choice of sandwiches, in my opinion. They were clearly decisive in your survival, so it’s ham and pickle for me from now on.

    See you on the hill.

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    • Thanks for your kind comments. I’ve had a lot of people contact me to say ‘I never leave a route description & I know I should and now I will.’ If I’ve done a single thing to make life easier for the MRTs, then I am happy. Obviously, I’d like to have achieved that without breaking 17 bones, but omelettes & eggs. It was pretty decent ham too, as I recall. Let’s be careful out there.

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